C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracyby Jeff Sharlet
Jeff Sharlet is the only journalist to have reported from inside the C Street House, the Fellowship residence known simply by its Washington, DC address. The house has lately been the scene of notorious political scandal, but more crucially it is home to efforts to transform the very fabric/strong>
C Street - where piety, politics, and corruption meet
Jeff Sharlet is the only journalist to have reported from inside the C Street House, the Fellowship residence known simply by its Washington, DC address. The house has lately been the scene of notorious political scandal, but more crucially it is home to efforts to transform the very fabric of American democracy. And now, after laying bare its tenants' past in The Family, Sharlet reports from deep within fundamentalism in today's world, revealing that the previous efforts of religious fundamentalists in America pale in comparison with their long-term ambitions.
When Barack Obama entered the White House, headlines declared the age of culture wars over. In C Street, Sharlet shows why these conflicts endure and why they matter now - from the sensationalism of Washington sex scandals to fundamentalism's long shadow in Africa, where Ugandan culture warriors determined to eradicate homosexuality have set genocide on simmer.
We've reached a point where piety and corruption are not at odds but one and the same. Reporting with exclusive sources and explosive documents from C Street, the war on gays in Uganda, and the battle for the soul of America's armed forces - waged by a 15,000-strong movement of officers intent on "reclaiming territory for Christ in the military" - Sharlet reveals not the last gasp of old-time religion but the new front lines of fundamentalism.
The story of the evangelical elite's efforts to promote Christian ideals in U.S. domestic and international affairs.
Following his bestselling 2008 exposé The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, Harper's and Rolling Stone contributing editor Sharlet provides an unsettling account of the present-day inner workings of this secretive underground of Christian activists in government—variously known as the Family and the Fellowship—and its flagship C Street townhouse in Washington, D.C., which offers lodging, meals and prayer meetings for conservative Christian members of Congress. Elected by citizens, participating officials "persuade themselves that they were, in fact, selected by God," and promote anti-gay, anti-abortion and pro–free-market ideas. Shortly after publication of The Family, the C Street house won national media attention in connection with the extramarital affairs of three Republican politicians and Family members—Nevada Sen. John Ensign, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and former Mississippi Rep. Chip Pickering. (Ensign and Pickering were living at C Street.) Drawing on interviews and archival material, Sharlet details the scandals and Family efforts to cover them up, then clears the murk surrounding the spiritual group enough to show how C Street brings politicians and business leaders together to "do right by God and each other" by shaping legislation and fostering ties with—and U.S. support for—repressive foreign regimes. In Uganda, for example, the Family has poured millions into advancing God-led government and anti-gay efforts. One member, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, has often traveled at public expense to meet with leaders in Nigeria and other African nations to advance what he calls "the political philosophy of Jesus." Sharlet also explores the evangelical transformation of the armed services. Christian proselytizing pervades the military academies, and such groups as the Officers' Christian Fellowship, modeled on Family principles, view the global war on terror as a spiritual battle in which soldiers in Iraq have been forced to pray to Jesus. Sometimes called the "Christian mafia," the Family sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual Washington event that has been attended by every sitting U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
An eye-opener that rings multiple alarms.
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C StreetThe Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy
By Sharlet, Jeff
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2010 Sharlet, Jeff
All right reserved.
“As much as I did talk about going to the Appalachian Trail… that isn’t where I ended up.”
— South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, at the June 24, 2009, press conference at which he confessed to cheating on his wife.
IN 2008 I published a book called The Family, which took as its main subject a religious movement known to some as the Fellowship and to others as the Family and to most only through one of the many nonprofit entities created to express the movement’s peculiar approach to religion, politics, and power. One of these entities is the C Street Center Inc., in Washington, DC, or, simply, C Street, made infamous in the summer of 2009 by the actions of three Family associates: a senator, a governor, and a congressman, each with his own special C Street connection.
The senator lived there; the governor sought answers there; and the congressman’s wife says he rendezvoused with his mistress in his bedroom at the three-story redbrick town house on Capitol Hill, maintained by the Family for a singular goal, in the words of one Family leader: to “assist [congressmen] in better understandings of the teachings of Christ, and applying it to their jobs.”
Among the men thus assisted by the Family have been Sen. Tom Coburn and Sen. Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma Republicans racing each other to the far right of the political spectrum (Coburn has proposed the death penalty for abortion providers; Inhofe, who was a defender of the Abu Ghraib torturers, hosts regular foreign policy meetings at C Street); Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who insists that the Bible teaches we cannot serve both God and government; and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), who says that through meetings of his Family “cell” of like-minded politicians he receives divine instruction on subjects as varied as sex, oil, and Islam. There’s also Sen. John Thune (R-SD), Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY); Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN), and Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA). And Democrats, too: among them are Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida; North Carolina’s Ten Commandments crusader, Rep. Mike McIntyre; its newest Blue Dog, Rep. Heath Shuler; and Michigan’s Rep. Bart Stupak. In 2009 Stupak joined with Rep. Pitts to hold health care reform hostage to what Family leaders, pledging their support for Pitts early in his career, called “God’s leadership” in the long war against abortion.
Buried in the 592 boxes of documents dumped by the Family at the Billy Graham Center Archives in Wheaton, Illinois, are five decades’ worth of correspondence between members equally illustrious in their day: segregationist Dixiecrats and Southern Republican converts Sen. Absalom Willis Robertson (Pat Robertson’s father) and Sen. Strom Thurmond; a Yankee Klansman named Ralph Brewster and a blue-blooded fascist sympathizer named Merwin Hart; a parade of generals, oilmen, bankers, missile manufacturers; little big men of the provinces with fast food fortunes or chains of Piggly Wiggly supermarkets or gravel quarry empires. There was even the occasional liberal—Sen. Mark Hatfield, Republican of Oregon, and Sen. Harold Hughes, Democrat of Iowa—men of good faith and bad judgment who lent their names to the causes of the Family’s “brothers” overseas, the Indonesian genocidaire Suharto (Hatfield), the Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos (Hughes).
“Christ ministered to a few and did not set out to minister to large throngs of people,” says a supporter. The Family differs from more conventional fundamentalist groups in its preference for those whom it calls “key men” over the multitude. “We simply call ourselves the fellowship or a family of friends,” declares a document titled “Eight Core Aspects of the vision and methods,” distributed to members at the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast, the movement’s only public event. One of the Eight Core Aspects is the movement’s interpretation of Acts 9:15—“This man is my chosen instrument to take my name… before the Gentiles and their kings” (emphasis theirs). The Family’s unorthodox reading of this verse is that it is an injunction to work not through public revivals but through private relationships with “ ‘the king’—or other leaders of our world—who hold enormous influence—for better or worse—over vast numbers of people.” The Family sees itself as a ministry for the benefit of the poor, by way of the powerful. The best way to help the weak, it teaches, is to help the strong.
In 2008 and 2009, the Family did so by helping Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC), and former representative Chip Pickering (R-MS) cover up extramarital affairs, and in Ensign’s case secret payments. Not to avoid embarrassment for the Family, an organization that until 2009 denied its own existence, but because the Family believes that its members are placed in power by God; that they are his “new chosen”; that the senator, the governor, and the congressman were “tools” with which to advance his kingdom, an ambition so worthy that beside it all personal failings pale.
On June 16, 2009, Sen. Ensign flew home to Las Vegas to confess his affair. Ensign, fourth-ranking Republican and a man with Iowa and Pennsylvania Avenue on his mind, had made a career of going against the grain of his hometown. He was a moral scold who’d promoted himself as a Promise Keeper—a member of the conservative men’s ministry—and a family values man. He’d been a hound once, according to friends, but he’d come to Christ before he came to politics; for Ensign, the two passions were intertwined. He didn’t just go to church, he lived in one, the Family’s house at 133 C Street, SE, registered as a church for tax purposes.
I’d met Ensign there once, when I was writing an earlier book on unusual religious communities around the country. I’d seen some strange things: a Pentecostal exorcism in North Carolina; a massive outdoor Pagan dance party in honor of “the Horned One” in rural Kansas; a “cowboy church” in Texas featuring a cross made of horseshoes and, in lieu of a picture of Jesus, a lovely portrait of a seriously horned Texas Longhorn steer.
But C Street was in its own category, simultaneously banal—a prayer meeting of congressmen in which they insisted on calling God “Coach”—and more unsettling than anything I’d witnessed. Doug Coe, the “first brother” of the Family since 1969, used to say that Jesus was not a sissy. That disdain for weakness infuses the movement’s theology so completely, so naturally, that it comes across as almost amiable. “I’ve seen pictures of the young men in the Red Guard,” he says in a videotaped sermon, a tall man in a rumpled suit, spreading out his hands like he’s setting up a joke. “They would bring in this young man’s mother… he would take an axe and cut her head off.” Coe makes a chopping motion. That, he says, is dedication to a cause. But there’s nothing grim about his presentation; he sounds like he’s inviting you to join a team or a fund-raiser. And he is. “A covenant! A pledge!” he exclaims, setting up the punch line. “That’s what Jesus said.” Such is the C Street style, the most violent metaphors imaginable deployed as maxims for everyday living, from the prayer calendar on the wall that called on the house’s congressional tenants to devote a portion of each morning to spiritual war (combat by prayer) against “demonic strongholds” such as Buddhism and Hinduism, to Coe’s routine invocation of history’s worst villains as models for the muscle he’d rather see applied on Christ’s behalf. The first time I met Coe, he was in the midst of a spiritual mentoring session in which he cited “Hitler, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh [and] bin Laden” as models with which to understand the “total Jesus” worshipped by the Family. He sipped hot cocoa while he lectured.
Ensign seemed to fall on the banal end of that spectrum. He missed the prayer meeting, bouncing into the foyer in red jogging shorts and a white T-shirt that made his tan—the most impressive tan in the Technicolor portrait gallery of golf-happy, twenty-first-century political America—glow beneath his equally striking silver hair. Ensign’s hair, prematurely gray, is his most senatorial feature; it possesses a gravitas all its own. The man beneath it, though, square-jawed and thick-browed, is something of a giggler. Jogging in place, grinning, bobbing his head back and forth, he boasted to a young female aide who’d been sent to fetch him about the time he’d clocked on his run. “That’s great!” she said, then asked him what kind of time he could make showering and getting ready for work. Up popped Ensign’s arched black brows: a challenge! “I’m all about setting records today!” he said.
And away he went. When I wrote The Family, I devoted only a sentence to him, describing him as a “conservative casino heir elected to the Senate from Nevada, a brightly tanned, hapless figure who uses his Family connections to graft holiness to his gambling-fortune name.” After his press conference, a magazine editor, noting Ensign’s Washington address and recalling my book, asked me if I wanted to write something about Ensign’s apparent hypocrisy. I didn’t. The senator’s sins were his own.
Next up was Mark Sanford, the weather-beaten governor of South Carolina, his tan the result of days spent in the woods, hunting, or on his tractor, planting. He was famous for his frugality. As a congressman, he slept on a futon rolled out across his office rather than coughing up rent, and as governor he turned down $700 million in federal stimulus money because he feared it would lead to “a thing called slavery.” In 1995, when Ensign and Sanford were at the vanguard of the right-wing revolution, Ensign quietly continued business as usual, collecting $450,000 from political action committees, more than any other freshman. Mark Sanford refused to take a dime. By 2009, even more than Ensign Sanford was being spoken of as presidential material for the GOP, fabric to be cut, folded, and sewn.
So, when on June 18, 2009, Sanford disappeared, some assumed it was for a good or maybe even a noble reason. For days, there were whispers about where the governor had gone—gone being the operative word, because nobody knew where the governor was. Not in the governor’s mansion in Columbia, not in the airy beach house on Sullivan’s Island he shared with his wife, Jenny Sanford, and their four boys, not at Coosaw, the semi-feral, falling-down plantation along the Combahee River that had originally brought the Sanford clan, Floridians, to South Carolina. Calls to his wife, the state’s elegantly beautiful First Lady, a gentlewoman, in the antique parlance of the state’s finest matrons, led reporters to believe the governor was thinking, working on a book about the meaning of conservatism. Calls to his staff led seekers to the woods: to the Appalachian Trail, to which the governor was said to have taken in contemplation.
Contemplation of what? Hopes rose, résumés rustled, ambitions flared, as Sanford’s circle imagined the governor emerging from the wilderness as a new kind of contender. They didn’t see the truth coming. “Mark Sanford literally likes to go his own way,” gushed GOP consultant Mark McKinnon, whose clients have included George W. Bush and John McCain. “For this act alone, we’re going to move Sanford up at least a notch on our Top 10 GOP contenders for 2012.” In the days ahead he’d become a laughingstock: a symbol of all that is pathetic about politics, men, middle age, even romance itself at the tired end of a decade celebrated by no one. But before that, while he was still gone, so long as nobody knew where he was, when the governor for a moment occupied a space in the realm between the possibility of tragedy (was he silent because his broken body lay at the bottom of a gully?) and the transcendent (would he walk out of the woods with the wisdom of one who knows how to quiet the world’s noise?), he was almost a folk hero. His supporters—the true believers who loved his Roman nose and his leathery skin and his wry smile, and the Washington slicks who would sell these features as the face of a modern-day Cincinnatus, a reluctant philosopher-king for the common man—asked themselves if this strange departure would herald his arrival. Would the governor return from the wilderness to announce a higher aspiration?
Yes, in a sense: love. On June 24, after a reporter for the Columbia State tracked him down in a Georgia airport and discovered he’d returned from Argentina, Sanford called a press conference at which he mused on his genuine affection for the Appalachian Trail, then pledged to “lay out that larger story”—the story of where he’d been the previous week. “Given the immediacy of y’all’s wanting to visit,” he said, he was forced to intrude private concerns into a public meeting. He began with apologies to Jenny and his four boys, “jewels and blessings,” his staff, and an old friend—the memory of whose early support brought the governor close to tears. “I let them down by creating a fiction with regard to where I was going,” he said. He had been on an “adventure trip,” indeed, but not on the Appalachian Trail. He rubbed his forehead, his eyes glanced off into nowhere, his voice wobbled. “I’m here,” he continued, still deferring any concrete explanation of why he actually was there, “because if you were to look at God’s laws, they’re in every instance designed to protect people from themselves.” He warmed to the subject of religion, firmer ground, he knew, for the narrative of public confession. “The biggest self of self is indeed self.”
The answer to that riddle was a woman. The “biggest self of self” for Sanford was love; he’d fallen into it, and he wanted us to forgive him.
To that point, I’d been interested only in the convoluted candor with which he was testifying. It was some good church, tension building, a parade of emotions not often on display in political life. I admired him for it. Then came the kicker. In answer to a question about how long his family had known (five months), Sanford paused, as if lost in recollection. Then: “I’ve been to a lot of—as part of what we called C Street when I was in Washington. It was a, believe it or not, a Christian Bible study—some folks who asked members of Congress hard questions that I think were very, very important. And I’ve been working with them.”
Another spiritual adviser, Warren “Cubby” Culbertson, was at the press conference. Every month, Cubby and two seminary professors invited fifteen well-connected men for a meeting at a downtown office where Cubby, a wealthy entrepreneur, would train them in the use of “spiritual weaponry,” with distinctly political implications. “Never underestimate the influence the ungodly have upon the godly,” he warned. “The ungodly want to unlord the Lord, but they must first unlord the law.” It was a ministry for men who had already achieved financial success and yet wanted more—meaning greater influence. The “up and out,” as the Family calls such people. “The ostrich has wings,” Cubby taught, “but cannot fly.” By which he meant: “The almost saved are totally damned.” No half measures. The men Cubby brought to God were instructed to become the “most holy,” to “enter God’s playing field,” to take God’s “litmus tests.” Ask yourself: Do I keep my eye on “the enemies known as the world”? “The children of the devil are obvious,” Cubby advised, citing 1 John 3:9; avoid them or become an “eternal inhabitant of Sodom.”
At the press conference, you could almost see Sanford weighing his options, trying to hold on to his ambition, lamenting the loss of the woman he’d already described to Jenny as his “heart connection.” Then he made his choice: C Street. “A spiritual giant,” Sanford said of Cubby, who was looking on from the back of the room, and finally tears began to fall.
I was stunned. One of the first rules of C Street is that you don’t talk about C Street. “We sort of don’t talk to the press about the house,” C Streeter Bart Stupak, a conservative Democrat, had told a reporter back in 2002. Another C Streeter, Zach Wamp, spoke out against transparency in the wake of the Ensign scandal. “The C Street residents have all agreed they won’t talk about their private living arrangements, Wamp said, and he [Wamp] intends to honor that pact,” reported the Knoxville News-Sentinel, after scandal forced the press to pay attention.
“I hate it that John Ensign lives in the house and this happened because it opens up all of these kinds of questions,” Wamp told the paper. “I’m not going to be the guy who goes out and talks.”
From the Family’s point of view, C Street’s code of secrecy is not a conspiracy but a matter of simple efficiency. “The more invisible you can make your organization,” Doug Coe observes, “the more influence it will have.” True enough; that’s why we have lobbying and disclosure laws. It’s also part of why we have the Fourth Estate, the press, to hold the powerful accountable. If the press can’t comfort the afflicted, as the old saying goes—and even as a onetime employee of a freebie paper used primarily by homeless men for warmth in the winter, I doubt that it can—it may, on occasion, afflict the comfortable.
But most reporters have never shown much interest in C Street or the organization behind it. The exceptions are remarkable for the scrutiny that didn’t follow. Not in 1952, when the Washington Post noticed that the Secretary of Defense had granted four senators the use of a military plane for international Family meetings; questions were raised, then dropped. No questions at all followed the New Republic’s 1965 report on the Family’s only public event, the National Prayer Breakfast (then the Presidential Prayer Breakfast), an evangelical ritual of national devotion that politicians skipped at their peril. In 1975 Playboy published an exhaustively researched report on how the Family functioned as an off-the-books bank for its congressional members. Then, nothing.
Not even Watergate could goad the press into real action. The New York Times noted that President Ford had convened his old all-Republican congressional prayer group—organized by the Family—to consider Nixon’s pardon, but asked no questions about what criteria it would use. Time did a little better, identifying Doug Coe as the top man of what it described as “almost an underground network,” an “intricate web” of Christian activists in the capital, but left it at that. In December 1973, Dan Rather challenged his deputy press secretary to explain why Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson continued to make frequent visits to the White House he’d left in criminal disgrace. “Prayer,” came the answer. “Now we all know the way Washington works,” Rather replied. “People ingratiate themselves with people in positions of power, and at such things as, yes, a prayer breakfast, they do their business. Isn’t someone around here worried at least about the symbolism of this?” Apparently not; the questions that followed were bemused. Nobody seriously wondered why the soon-to-be-convicted Watergate conspirator, a man who had allegedly proposed firebombing the Brookings Institution, needed to worship in the White House. Not even a few years later, when Colson, never good at keeping his mouth shut, told the story of Doug Coe’s collaboration with the CEO of Raytheon, manufacturer of missiles, to bring Colson into the Family fold. “A veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government,” as Colson called the network that would vouch for his parole after only six months in prison.
Coe himself boasted of what the press couldn’t see, declaring that the single public event, the Prayer Breakfast, “is only one-tenth of one percent of the iceberg… [and] doesn’t give the true picture of what is going on.” Ronald Reagan almost dared someone to ask questions in 1985, announcing at the Prayer Breakfast that he wished he could say more about the sponsor of the elite gathering. “But it’s working precisely because it’s private.” By the age of Reagan, much of the press had come to see that as a virtue. “Members of the media know,” said Reagan, “but they have, with great understanding and dignity, generally kept it quiet. I’ve had my moments with the press, but I commend them this day, for the way they’ve worked to maintain the integrity of this movement.” Time, for instance, ran a feature on the “Bible Beltway,” rife with factual errors and seeming to almost celebrate “the semisecret involvement of so many high-powered names.” There was Secretary of State James Baker and his wife, Susan; the Kemps; the Quayles; and a Democrat, Don Bonker of Washington, since departed from Congress to become a free trade lobbyist. The presence of Democrats as well as Republicans, the magazine proposed, proved there could be no politics involved.
The first serious report in decades came in 2002, when Lisa Getter, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times, published a major front-page exposé in which she revealed that the Family dispatched congressmen as missionaries to carry the Gospel to Muslim leaders around the world—and did so with a “vow of silence.” The media response was—well, there was no response. Several months later, the Associated Press reported on C Street’s subsidized housing for the anointed, describing the Family as “a secretive religious organization.” Nobody followed up on that story, either. That spring, I published in Harper’s magazine an account of a month I’d spent living with the Family in Virginia. I included a C Street vignette, a spiritual counseling session between Doug Coe and Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican. Tiahrt came seeking wisdom on how Christians could win the population “race” with “the Muslim” and left contemplating Coe’s advice to consider Christ through the historical lens of Hitler, Lenin, and Osama bin Laden. Like the other stories before it, mine was left to stand alone, giggled over and gossiped about by media colleagues but treated as a true tale of the quirks of the political class that demanded no further investigation.
Or, worse, it fell victim to the rule of reductio ad Hitlerum, the sensible Internet adage that holds that the first party in a debate to compare an opponent to Hitler loses. In 2004, a Democratic candidate for the northern Virginia congressional seat held by Republican Frank Wolf noted Wolf’s association with Coe. Coe’s Hitler talk wasn’t limited to the example of power I’d witnessed him offering Rep. Tiahrt at C Street, although it has to be said, immediately and emphatically, that Coe is not a neo-Nazi. He uses Hitler, his defenders declare, as a metaphor. For what? For Jesus. The lion and the lamb are too abstract for Coe. He asks his followers to imagine pure power, as modeled by Hitler and other totalitarians; then, he instructs, imagine that power used for Christ, for good instead of evil.
When the Virginia Democratic candidate pointed to these unorthodox teachings, the Washington Post would have none of it, editorializing against this low blow and dispatching a reporter to prove it untrue for good measure. He did so by asking the aggrieved parties and their friends if the accusations were true; they assured him they were not. Case closed—until 2008, when NBC aired videotape given to me by an evangelical critic of the Family’s “spiritual abuse,” as he put it, depicting Coe rattling on to a group of evangelical leaders about the fellowship model offered by “Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler.” There was more: audio buried deep on the website of the Navigators, a fundamentalist ministry, of Coe going into greater detail on the depth of commitment he thought his disciples should learn from such men: “You say, hey, you know Jesus said, ‘You got to put him before mother-father-brother-sister’? Hitler, Lenin, Mao, that’s what they taught the kids. Mao even had the kids killing their own mother and father. But it wasn’t murder. It was for building the new nation. The new kingdom.”
None of this, not even the NBC News video, broke the story beyond a few isolated blips in the news cycle. There was no conspiracy of silence. Rather, all of these reports were lost in the black hole of conventional wisdom. A scoop, for most reporters, isn’t actually a new story; it’s a twist or a new variation on a story people already think they understand, a story that reassures the reader that his or her cynicism is justified and yet contained within the known realm of vice: stuffed in an envelope next to a wad of Ben Franklins or tucked into bed beside a stripper. The parameters for stories about religion in politics are even narrower: fundamentalism sells, but only if it’s low-class, the purview of sweaty Southern men in too-tight suits pounding pulpits and thumping Bibles. C Street—a distinguished address, an upscale clientele, an internationalist perspective—simply did not register.
Until, that is, sex entered the story. Suddenly, the media that had ignored C Street for years needed to know all about it. Or, rather, not all about it, not its implications for democracy and desire; interest was limited to the topic of hypocrisy, publicly pious Republicans, and their secret lovers. Ensign’s affair was at that early stage still mostly limited to his two-minute press conference and a few grubby, isolated details: that his best friend’s wife was the best friend of Ensign’s wife, for instance. Mark Sanford, on the other hand, offered both sex and schadenfreude, an exotic mistress and love letters exposed, a wife, Jenny Sanford, who refused to stand by her man, and a man who refused to stop talking about his lover. And then there was C Street, the mysterious address linked to both scandals.
I was the only reporter to have written from within its walls, and suddenly that mattered in a way it hadn’t before, when I’d been bleating on about the Family’s support for murderous regimes in Haiti and Indonesia and Somalia, machete militias and “kill lists” and rape rooms, all blessed by the Family’s faith and financed by its “leaders led by God” in Washington. Boring! Or, as one young radio producer put it, “What’s a Somalia?”
But consensual sex between adults? That could be news. Only by dispensing with the dead, though—“Let’s save Somalia for another time!” another producer suggested brightly—and kicking the heartbroken while they were down. That’s what Sanford was. The man had fallen in love, and everybody has done stupid things for love, and most of us, at one point or another, have done something awful. That’s not really news, it’s an Aesop’s fable. Evangelicals ritualize this truth with the declaration that we’re all sinners; secular folk speak of psychology’s contradictions. But such recognitions are reserved for private lives, and Mark Sanford’s self-destruction was public spectacle, served up for our satisfaction.
Shortly after the governor’s press conference, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow invited me on her evening show. I’d spoken to Maddow several times during her radio days, and I knew she was one of the smartest hosts in broadcast journalism. But I was conflicted about discussing Sanford. Sanford was done. The question that remained was, Do we gloat over his hypocrisy? Or do we welcome him into the human race—where the heart wants what it wants and that’s not always a simple or good thing, even when it’s a true thing?
I don’t think I would have been able to do that in a five-minute television interview, which is why I thank God for the sad intervention of Michael Jackson. I imagine Mark Sanford said much the same thing on June 25, the day the Sanford scandal started to crest, and also the day Michael Jackson died. Suddenly, one southern governor’s affair was very small news.
I was buying a new pair of shoes when I heard. When I’d received the invitation to be on the Maddow show, I was wearing flip-flops. That seemed too casual for a TV studio, and besides, I needed a new pair of shoes. I tried Shoe Mania, in Manhattan’s Union Square. The store was abuzz: He’s dead! Who? Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson is dead. I was stunned. In my grief, I bought a pair of shoes Michael might have liked, long, polished, and pointy, flashier than any I’d ever owned.
I walked out onto Broadway, where drivers had opened their windows and jacked up their radios, “Rock with You” mingling with the honk and roar of the city at rush hour. Some people didn’t hear it, some didn’t care, but sprinkled up and down the avenue there was immediate mourning. I saw an old woman crying and three middle-aged white men with beer guts goofing the moonwalk and girls who hadn’t been born yet in the days of “Billie Jean” gliding backward up Broadway, smooth as Michael’s falsetto. Here was another spectacle of self-destruction, but the public responded not with vicious glee, as to a sex scandal, as to so many of Jackson’s failings in the past, but with necessary delight; with the remembrance of transcendence; with the late recognition of something that had been lost long before. Over the radio and in the faltering and fluid dance steps of the mourners thumped the beat of pop democracy, Walt Whitman you could dance to, songs that mattered more to how we all imagined and dreamed ourselves than any of Michael’s scandals—much less those of a couple of Republican politicians bent on disowning their own desires. So why the hell was I going on TV to count the sins of the love-struck governor of South Carolina?
I wasn’t. I was barely a block away from the shoe store when a call came from MSNBC. I’d been bumped. “Thank you, Michael Jackson,” I thought. The King of Pop had saved my soul, prevented me from playing the part of a puritan, scolding Sanford for his confession when his real weakness was not his transgression—seedy, selfish, and human—but his retreat. He’d set out on the road to Damascus but had turned back too early. Instead of becoming an apostle of a love as free as his economic libertarianism, he’d fallen back on “God’s law.” And that was defined for him by C Street not as liberation but as the sort of freedom that isn’t free, that which protects us from ourselves, “this notion,” as he put it, “of what it is that I want.”
Unless, that is, what we want is power.
And then, King David drew me back to the story. Two days after Sanford’s public tears, he seemed back in control of himself. Opening a televised cabinet meeting, he spoke calmly of scripture, as if he were Cubby Culbertson himself, leading a spiritual counseling session. The topic was resignation: Sanford’s rejection of his own party’s calls for him to do so. As a congressman, he’d called on Bill Clinton to resign after the exposure of his affair. But there was a difference. Clinton was just a president. Mark Sanford, he explained to his cabinet, was like a king. King David, in particular. “What I find interesting is the story of David,” he said, all waver and dodge gone from his voice, his tone that of a teacher, not a penitent.
“What I find interesting”—it’s an evangelical men’s movement phrase, it is interesting to note, what I find interesting, the almost casual, seemingly humble approach to a major claim based on a bit of scripture isolated from its text and put to work as a maxim, a law for leaders, an ancient justification for present-day authority. What Sanford found interesting about David was this: “The way in which he fell mightily, he fell in very significant ways.”
The governor was speaking of the second book of Samuel, chapter 11. King David, God’s chosen leader, is in Jerusalem while his armies are at war, conquering and destroying. All is well; but “all” is not enough for David. One night he wakes in the dark, restless, and goes up to the roof. From his high perch he looks down rather than up, toward the world rather than God, and spies a woman bathing. Lovely. The king snaps his fingers and off his servants go, and when they return they’ve brought with them the woman David desires, still wet from her bath. Her name is Bathsheba, and David rapes her or perhaps seduces her, offering the prospect of sex with the king in lieu of the loneliness she must feel for her husband, gone fighting the king’s wars. And she becomes pregnant.
So David tries to cover it up. He summons Bathsheba’s husband, a brave soldier named Uriah, back from the front. Take a break, David tells him, go home, see your wife—sleep with her, that is, so you’ll think the child is yours. Uriah refuses to enjoy himself while his comrades are at war. All right, says David, but wait here another night. The next morning, David sends a message to the soldier’s commander: “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retreat from him, that he may be struck down and die.”
It works. Uriah, the memory of his good king and his good wife fresh in his mind, presses hard against the enemy, driving them back toward their city until Uriah stands with his sword at the gate, the enemy broken, Uriah and his men strong. Only, there are no men. They’ve fallen back. Then, an enemy archer rises from the walls and puts an arrow in Uriah’s heart.
So David wins his widow. There are consequences—God kills their first child, the one conceived in sin—but their second baby, the one born of marriage, thrives; they name him Solomon.
Yes, says Sanford, David “fell in very, very significant ways. But then picked up the pieces and built from there.” The key, Sanford declared, is humility. And he could do humility. He did some right there, apologizing to his cabinet, making clear he wasn’t going to resign. Like David, he had a calling. He was chosen. God had put him in office, and God would take him out; until then, Mark Sanford would remain governor of South Carolina.
This logic forms one of the foundations of C Street: the alchemy by which men elected by citizens persuade themselves that they were, in fact, selected by God. That sounds impossibly arrogant but it is, as Sanford said, a kind of humility. The chosen politician does not take credit for his success, he does not suppose that it was his virtue that led the people to elect him. He is just another sinner. But God wants to use him, as He used David. “God appoints specific leaders to fulfill a mission; He doesn’t hold a popular vote,” writes John C. Maxwell, a management guru on C Street’s Prayer Breakfast circuit, in a Bible study titled Leadership: Deliberate Selection vs. Democratic Election.
The other side of such humility is the abdication of responsibility. One chosen for leadership isn’t accountable for his own actions. That’s not what the rabbis teach when they speak of King David, of course, nor is it the real meaning of Calvinism’s doctrine of God’s elect. It’s American fundamentalism, a response to what one Family leader once lamented as the “substitution of democracy for religion.” The bastardization of the King David story reverses the process, replacing democracy with religion. Mark Sanford used that reversal to justify his own power in defiance of the minor sin of adultery. If David got a pass for murder, so, too, should Sanford be excused the contemplation of a beautiful woman’s “tan lines,” on which he’d rhapsodize in the love letters soon made public.
That calculation seems reasonable enough, if self-serving, until one considers the implications. David Coe, for instance, son of Doug Coe, heir apparent to the leadership of the Family, and Sen. Ensign’s C Street moral counselor, puts the application of the King David story in starker terms. The first time I ever heard King David invoked within the Family, in fact, was when David Coe visited the men with whom I was living at Ivanwald, a house I describe in The Family. They were a group of young future leadership prospects, and David Coe had come to do some spiritual training. Like his father, David Coe is tall, dark, lanky, and slow-moving, so calmly charismatic one forgets he is teaching; Coe lessons seem like gentle musings. That day, David Coe mused on King David, who “liked to do really, really bad things.” Why, then, should we revere him?
The men were stumped. Maybe because I was raised around Judaism, a half-Jew who once celebrated Passover and Easter, I knew the answer. “Because he was chosen,” I said.
“Yes,” said Coe. “Chosen. Interesting set of rules, isn’t it?” Then he turned to another man. “Beau, let’s say I hear you raped three little girls. And now here you are at Ivanwald. What would I think of you, Beau?”
Beau, a good-natured jock who loved wrestling, dancing, and long walks in the woods, supposed that Coe wouldn’t think well of him at all. But that wasn’t so, Coe answered. Beau, he explained, was one of God’s tools; that’s what it means to be chosen. The normal rules don’t apply. Morality—a human construct—doesn’t even apply. “Moral orders,” he said, “that’s for kids. God’s will is beyond morals.” It wasn’t that Coe thought Beau should rape three little girls, or that he wouldn’t be horrified if Beau did; but such crimes would be beside the point. “We simply obey,” Coe said. Genghis Khan, Coe suggested, provided a good example. According to Coe, Genghis Khan had conquered not for greed but because God told him to. When some monks asked him what justified his bloody conquests, Genghis answered, “I don’t ask. I submit.” Coe applied this logic to contemporary politics: “We elect our leaders,” he said, “Jesus elects his.”
The first of these leaders, for the Family, was Arthur B. Langlie, who was elected mayor of Seattle in 1938. Three years earlier, on a night in April, God had come to the founder of the Family, a Norwegian immigrant named Abraham Vereide. Christianity, God told Abram, as Vereide was known, had been getting it wrong for nearly two thousand years, devoting itself to the poor, the weak, the down-and-out. God told Abram that night that Abram’s calling would be the “up and out,” not life’s “derelicts, its failures,” as a friend wrote in a hagiography of Abram, Modern Viking. Rather, it should serve “those even more in need, who live dangerously in high places.” Abram immediately set to work organizing a committee of nineteen wealthy businessmen to break the spine of organized labor—Satan’s legions—in Seattle. Arthur Langlie, a thirty-five-year-old teetotaling lawyer, was their hammer. “It can be done,” he said, at one of Abram’s early prayer meetings. “I am ready to let God use me.”
God—plus the financial backing of that early cadre, a network of church workers organized by Abram, and a sieg-heiling, uniformed fraternity called the New Order of Cincinnatus—used Langlie, indeed, installing him in a city council seat vacated in fear of Langlie’s New Order men. From there he moved first to the mayor’s office—over the combined opposition of Democrats and Republicans who accused him of fascism—and then, in 1940, to the governor’s mansion, where he set about instituting God’s will as he’d learned it from Abram. It wasn’t about church or vice or soft concerns about pious women: it was about capitalism—and the invisible hand of the market with which Langlie purged the welfare rolls and ground the unions into corruption or contrition. The defining moment of Abram’s early ministry, one to which he’d return again and again over the decades, featured a labor leader named “Jimmy”—Abram rarely remembered union men’s last names—giving his teary testimony to a gathering of seventy-five God-led businessmen, apologizing for his rebelliousness in the past and pledging himself to Abram’s program, the result of which would be “no need for a labor union.” One of the businessmen clapped a hand on the humbled union man’s shoulder. “Jimmy,” he said, in words Abram would always remember, “on this basis we go on together.”
On that basis, Abram took his program—the Idea, he called it—first national and then international. By 1942 he’d organized businessmen’s committees in dozens of cities, and relocated himself first to the other Washington, the capital. In the midst of a January snowstorm, he assembled his first meeting of congressmen to hear the Christian testimony of Howard Coonley, the ultraright president of the National Association of Manufacturers. Coonley saw a third front for the war, after Europe and Asia, right there in Washington, against Franklin Roosevelt’s socialism and the death of a Christian nation in which God’s chosen vessels—the Up and Outers—were free to produce wealth for all to enjoy by way of trickle-down religion. The Up and Outers won their first battle the next year with the passage of the Smith-Connally Act, the beginning of the New Deal’s repeal. “It is the age of minority control,” prophesied Abram; democracy, he believed, had died back in 1935, no match for communism or fascism. He proposed instead what he called then—and what C Streeters call now—“the Better Way,” Up and Outers, guided by God, making the hard decisions behind closed doors.
By war’s end those doors belonged to a four-story mansion on Embassy Row in Washington, purchased with the help of a beautiful socialite widow, Marian Aymar Johnson. Abram called this prototype for C Street a “Christian Embassy,” headquarters for the movement he’d by then incorporated as International Christian Leadership (ICL). And international it was: in 1946, Abram undertook his first overseas mission with a mandate from the State Department to examine Nazi prisoners for conversion potential. He found more than a few willing to switch out the führer for the American father-god, men such as Hermann Abs, a leader of ICL’s German division and the wizard of the West German miracle—until, decades later, he was discovered by Jewish Nazi hunters to have been “Hitler’s leading banker.” But Abs was an innocent compared to many of the men Abram recruited, men from whom he learned not fascism—a European disease, to which American fundamentalism even at its most authoritarian has always been immune—but the power of forgetting. The blank slate, the sins of the powerful wiped clean—that was an idea, Abram realized, that would flourish in cold war America.
Abram had grasped the cold war before most, declaring at World War II’s end the immediate commencement of World War III. In 1955, Sen. Frank Carlson, with whom Abram had launched the annual ritual that would become the National Prayer Breakfast in 1953 by calling in favors from a reluctant Eisenhower, coined the phrase that would serve as the movement’s motto: Worldwide Spiritual Offensive. In 1959, Sen. Carlson took the fight to Haiti, where he decreed François “Papa Doc” Duvalier God’s man for the island nation and thus worthy of U.S. support, the guns and butter that kept Papa Doc—one of the most lunatic killers of the Western Hemisphere—and then his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc,” in business for decades. What was in it for ICL? Help the weak by helping the strong. They helped Papa Doc and Papa Doc helped the businessmen who traveled to Haiti with Carlson, and the businessmen helped Carlson and the Republican Party: help all around that somehow never trickled down to the Haitian people. In 1966, ICL moved on to Indonesia, where General Suharto had come to power through what the CIA would later call “one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century.” Abram called the coup a “spiritual revolution,” and began sending delegations of congressmen and oil executives who became champions of the genocidal regime. Help the weak by helping the strong: Suharto, ICLers believed, helped the weak of Indonesia resist the temptations of communism, by any means necessary.
Abram’s lanky young new lieutenant, Doug Coe, brought a new spirit to the organization. Abram had frowned on publicity as low-class, the currency of the masses, and Coe embraced secrecy as an expression of his religion, a mystic commitment to quiet authority expressed not through a central organization but a proliferation of “cells,” as the movement called the building blocks of their power. Each unit “should work behind the scenes,” Coe wrote. “It should have no stationery, no publicity.” Budgets should be off the books, the official sums nothing more than seed money. “It is important to note what God is doing in terms of finances that is not visible to the casual observer.” Each cell, each front, might incorporate separately, Coe wrote, but “in all cases the concept remains the same.”
What was the concept? “Men who are picked by God!” Not the many, but the few. Under Coe’s guidance, Family politicians embraced the idea that God prefers the services of a dedicated elite to the devotion of the masses. “I have had a great and thrilling experience reading the condensed version of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” one of Coe’s lieutenants wrote him after Coe had given him a reading list for “the Work,” as their mission was often called. “Doug, what a lesson in vision and perspective! Nazism started with seven guys around a table in the back of an old German Beer Hall. The world has been shaped so drastically by a few men who really want it such and so. How we need this same kind of stuff as a Hitler or a Lenin.” That is, for Jesus, of course.
In 1964, Abram, his leadership dwindling, contributed to the movement a distillation of his Up and Out theology. “The Fellowship”—so ICL had come to be called—“recognizes that no one cometh into the Father and into the family relationship except by Him.” That’s a paraphrase of Matthew 11:27, the same verse I’d hear former attorney general Ed Meese open a Family prayer meeting with nearly four decades later. “The strength of the wolf is the pack,” Abram continued, “but the strength of the pack is the wolf.”
Once I asked a young Family leader about the dictators and thugs and white-collar criminals it seems to specialize in. “I don’t worry whether some of them are wolves,” he said, “because I’d rather let a wolf in than keep any sheep out.” I pointed out that there are no sheep in the Family, since the organization was only interested in leaders. “Yeah,” he agreed, “but don’t the wolves need Jesus most of all?”
As Coe’s authority grew, so did the Fellowship’s reach around the globe, with cells in the governments of seventy nations by the late 1960s, more than double that of just a few years earlier. The Catholic generals and colonels who rotated coup by coup through the leadership of Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other Latin American countries consented to the Protestant ministrations of the Fellowship in return for access to American congressmen. Indonesia’s Suharto, ostensibly a Muslim, declared of his Christian prayers in the presence of American oilmen, “In this way we convert ourselves, nobody converts us!” Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie, who believed he was himself God, gladly became a financial backer of the Fellowship in return for the flow of American foreign aid facilitated by its members. It was a pray-to-be-paid scheme, by savvy foreign leaders who could flatter the moral imaginations of American politicians in exchange for military dollars. Sometimes the Family made possible a relationship that might not otherwise have occurred, but mostly it cloaked realpolitik in religion, allowing its politician members to imagine they were doing God’s work as they funneled guns and cash and power to dictators such as Generalissimo Francisco Franco in Spain, General Park Chung-hee in South Korea, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines.
“Leaders,” an early ICL man had written, “cannot afford misinterpretation in the public’s eyes.” In 1966, Coe took steps to ensure such misinterpretation would not be possible, urging the board of directors toward a reorganization that would, in effect, hide the organization. “Though the background organization would remain the same,” went the proposal, “yet to be more effective for the aims peculiar to the movement, its administrative operations must be moved underground.” Members should not call themselves members; if they were to identify themselves at all, it should only be as “working with” the Prayer Breakfast, never for an organization. “I work with the Prayer Breakfast folks,” Sen. Sam Brownback, whose career has been shaped by the Family from college forward, told me, Coe’s lingo precisely intact years after its concoction. At the time, Coe offered examples of men doing effective work for the movement without publicizing their connection, among them Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, the admiral in command of the Seventh Fleet, and the general in charge of the Canal Zone. “The purpose of the changes set forth,” Coe wrote, “is to submerge the institutional image of ICL.”
The C Street House would become part of that plan. Coe scrapped the name International Christian Leadership and divided its finances between several smaller offshoots, some off-the-books accounting—most of his income would be provided by gifts from supporters—and the Fellowship Foundation, its name chosen to cloak the movement’s religious intentions. But even that was too plainly evidence of an institution, so he began referring to the movement as “a family,” “our worldwide family,” and, eventually, “the Family”—a name that led some within the group to joke about themselves as the Christian Mafia, a label that stuck. He wanted to move the headquarters, too. He first set his eye on a Washington estate called Tregaron, twenty acres of historic gardens surrounding a massive Georgian-style mansion between Woodley Park and Cleveland Park, an address of sufficient status that the Soviet Union tried to purchase it for its embassy. The Washington Post reported in 1974 that Sen. Harold Hughes had raised $3.5 million to buy the home for “religious work,” and that there was talk of making it the official vice presidential residence—owned by the Fellowship Foundation. “We’ve asked the Lord to give it to us,” Hughes explained, in reference to what he said were his anonymously donated funds.
In fact, Hughes—a bighearted but none-too-bright Democrat seduced by Coe’s rhetoric of “reconciliation”—was a front man. Coe had found the money in the pockets of a North Carolina manufacturer and an oilman named Harold McClure, who’d already donated the use of a private plane to fly congressmen on missionary junkets to Africa’s newly oil-rich nations. “Tregaron, if handled properly, could on a low profile basis provide the following for our world-wide family,” wrote Coe: an “orientation center” to recruit politicians for a “leadership led by God,” a communications center for the worldwide work, and housing for members of “the Core,” the Family’s inner circle.
“Some asked how anything low profile can be done at Tregaron?” Coe continued. “If we have men of national reputation”—Coe proposed making Hughes and several Republican congressmen the faces of the operation—“it would be easy for the rest of the fellowship to use Tregaron in a manner which would be rather obscure.” Coe would be in charge, but not visibly: “My role as well would be done in the background.”
But Coe didn’t get his mansion. One of the old-timers, a retired marine general named Merwin Silverthorn, responded with fury to what he saw as dirty dealing, railing against Coe’s proposal to use “front men” for the work. Coe likely nodded appreciatively; with a voice like a woodchuck out for an amble and a big, dopey smile, Coe seems almost immune to displays of anger. He gave up on Tregaron, but four years later he got his wish, a mansion on a hill across the Potomac River with an even more distinguished pedigree. It was said to have been built by George Mason, though local historians insist it’s of a more recent vintage. It certainly looks like a manse fit for a founding father, white-columned and secluded at the end of a cul-de-sac in Arlington. The Family calls it the Cedars, and it’s the headquarters of the movement to this day. Across the street from the Cedars is a roomy house valued at $1 million (the Cedars is assessed at close to $8 million) called Potomac Point, used to shelter young women of good breeding who act as unpaid servants across the road. Next up the block is a circle of homes owned by Family associates; then Ivanwald, the house for young men I lived in for a brief period. When I was there, the C. S. Lewis Institute, yet another sister organization, dedicated to fighting the “infection of secularism,” was housed next door, and after that came a headquarters for the International Foundation—which is also the Fellowship Foundation.
The Family is as shifty with its properties as it is with its name. Potomac Point, for instance, went from Tim Coe, Doug Coe’s son and a leader of the movement, to his parents in 1989 for $580,000. They transferred the property to the C Street Center in 1992, which then transferred it to the Fellowship Foundation in 2002—which, in turn, is the main financial backer of the C Street Center. Tim Coe, meanwhile, sold his house in Annapolis in 2007 for close to $1 million to the Wilberforce Foundation, on the board of which he served, like his brother David, for a salary of $107,000. The Wilberforce Foundation is something of a shell. It employs nobody, is headquartered in David Coe’s house, has no conflict-of-interest policy, and exists, according to a board member, “to hold properties”—that is, to protect the assets of the much larger Fellowship Foundation from liability claims. The same year it bought Tim Coe’s house, the Wilberforce Foundation turned around and sold Ivanwald—originally purchased in 1987 by Jerome Lewis, an oilman and major donor—to the Fellowship Foundation for $1 million.
Lewis, meanwhile, presides over a related organization in Colorado, the Downing Foundation, which operates an ivy-covered, $6 million estate in Englewood, donated by Lewis in 1997. Downing describes its mission as support of the Family’s Fellowship Foundation, to which it sends an average of $88,000 a year. It also supports the Denver Leadership Foundation, which produces the Colorado Prayer Luncheon. The Luncheon’s Host Committee—which includes Lewis—describes the annual event as modeled on Washington’s, intended to recruit public officials to “renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and His purposes.” Where do the funds for such endeavors come from? Downing Partners Inc., an investment firm specializing in oil, gas, and real estate that donates hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to the Downing Foundation—its sole owner. Downing Partners, like Downing Foundation, is led, of course, by Jerome Lewis.
David Coe was one of three incorporators of the Foundation, but the estate’s manager says he rarely visits. It is not a sign of disinterest. The Family is linked to so many properties—Downing, Ivanwald, the Cedars, Cedar Point Farm in Maryland, projects across the United States—that it must be hard to keep track of them all. Which is why Richard Carver, a former assistant secretary of the air force who serves as president of the Fellowship Foundation (a post of bureaucratic leadership second to Doug Coe’s spiritual authority), told a reporter investigating C Street’s tax-exempt status that “it is simply not a part of anything we do”—despite the fact that in 2002, long before the C Street scandals, he boasted of the Fellowship’s authority over the property to another reporter. To be fair, Carver has a history of confusion over good housekeeping. At the Department of Defense he was best known for a multimillion-dollar order for fancy china, and his departure for private life and Christian work was clouded by charges of “ethical relativism” related to his decision to moonlight for investment banker Smith Barney while still on the Pentagon’s payroll.
The history of C Street as real estate is even murkier. Washington’s city tax office listed as its owner until the 2009 scandals a national fundamentalist organization called Youth With a Mission, but YWAM, as the group is known, insists that it sold C Street to the Fellowship Foundation sometime in the late 1980s. Until the C Street scandals brought the Fellowship Foundation under scrutiny, it listed C Street as a “sister organization” on its tax forms, which showed at least $450,000 in operational support for the Capitol Hill town house. But in 2009, the District of Columbia revoked 66 percent of C Street’s tax-exempt status, and a group of pastors called Clergy VOICE challenged its federal tax status as a church in 2010—C Street fulfills none of the IRS’s criteria for churches, making its exemption an insult to the real thing, said the pastors. The Fellowship Foundation responded by declaring itself entirely separate from its sister. Just in time: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a good government watchdog, called for a congressional ethics investigation into what they charged was discounted rent for congressmen, which over the years added up to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies for the Family’s political chosen. “It helps them out,” says Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the fundamentalist Traditional Values Coalition, who uses C Street himself for meetings with foreign diplomats. “A lot of men don’t have an extra $1,500 to rent an apartment. So the Fellowship house does that for those who are part of the Fellowship.”
That’s not all it does. Christian college girls provide maid service, turning down the sheets for the congressmen, and young men from Ivanwald are dispatched on occasion for “discipling” by the politicians. There’s a chef and a house mother and, in one of the several common areas, a giant-screen TV around which the politicians and their friends—besides Sheldon, Colonel Oliver North is a regular—gather to watch sports and talk policy. The TV replaced a grand piano left behind by former residents, but signs of the building’s earlier identity—it was a convent—remain. There is a little-used chapel, and in the formal dining room there is a stained-glass window, two large frames of snowy white bordered in blue, with a medallion of Jesus and a lamb in the middle. But it’s not about piety, declared the congressmen, when pressed to explain their residence in a “church” after the scandals broke; it’s about relationships—the polite word for politics.
That much seems true: money flows freely from one man’s political action committee to another, often across party lines. Stupak, for instance, contributed $2,500 to the gubernatorial campaign of ultra-right Zach Wamp. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO), one of the few women to spend time at the house in a capacity other than cleaning or cooking, forged such a happy bond with another visitor, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), that Cleaver refused to support her Democratic challenger. And when two C Streeters—Rep. Jerry Moran (R-KS), a resident, and Rep. Tiahrt, a visitor—squared off in a Republican primary to succeed yet another C Streeter, Sam Brownback, as Kansas’s next senator, Moran racked up powerful endorsements and financial support from housemates Ensign, DeMint, Coburn, and Thune, and from former C Streeters Pickering and Rep. Tom Osborne (R-NE)—even though Tiahrt is a closer political match. “The fact that everyone that lived in the same house,” said Sen. Inhofe, commenting on the endorsements, “that can’t just be a coincidence.”
Tiahrt felt double-crossed. A “family values” man, he’d moved his small-f family to Washington rather than spend most of his days away from them in politics and prayer at the C Street house, as Moran did. “My roommate endorsed me,” he squeaked. “I’ve been married to her for thirty-three years.”
Tiahrt had misunderstood capital-f Family values. “I’m always third,” the wife of a Family man told Ben Daniel, a Presbyterian pastor who as a young man was a member himself until he realized that some “brothers” mattered more than others. “The Fellowship comes first in my husband’s life. Then the children. Then me.” Anne Ryun, the wife of former representative Jim Ryun of Kansas, kept her husband out of C Street for that very reason. “It appears that the Fellowship discourages congressmen to move their families to DC for the express purpose of keeping the wives out of the loop. It’s a very, very separated world.”
The Ryuns are hardly liberal critics of C Street; they’re conservative Christians, and Anne spoke out only at the request of World, a fundamentalist magazine that has come to see C Street as home to the opposite of the family values it espouses. “It’s not really about family values,” another political wife told me of her own husband’s decision to decline an invitation to join. “It’s about who you know, your so-called brothers.” The point isn’t friendship, it’s power. “In order for God to do His mighty works,” writes Coe, “He doesn’t demand the majority, but a committed minority who are absolutely centered on Jesus Christ and the love of one another.”
Love—the miracle by which the Family understands itself, religion, politics, and power subsumed into the blurry affection of a “worldwide family of friends.” “It’s a very wide vision,” declares the second of “The Eight Core Aspects,” the 2010 draft of the vision first dreamed by Abram amid 1930s labor wars. Wide, but so shallow it can’t be said to have depth at all. Rather, the vision is two-dimensional, a screen; a veil; a cloth thrown over religion, politics, and power.
Or, not religion, really, since Suharto was a Muslim, Papa Doc practiced Vodun, Ensign depends on Holy Ghost power, and Sanford is an Episcopalian, a member of God’s frozen chosen, as they say.
And not politics, really, not in the sense we speak of politics in America, electoral contests, control of Congress, Democrats versus Republicans. Consider Kansas: heads, the Family wins; tails, they win. Consider C Street, Democrats and Republicans united for the sake of—what?
Power. But even that word is a euphemism, inasmuch as it suggests purpose. At its core, the Family lacks even that: it is conservative by default, the result of its conflation of worldly power with divine will. I asked Tim Kreutter, author of “The Eight Core Aspects,” why “the kings” of this world the Family has sought as brothers are so often not just conservative but also corrupt. “Because that’s what’s there,” he answered—an honest man, in his way, seemingly puzzled by the implication of the question: the simple idea that the fact of power is not its justification. Kreutter wasn’t interested in “power,” he was interested in “love,” the Family veil—“the main thing,” he wrote in the penultimate Core Aspect, the one that comes before serving kings. “And the main thing”—emphasis his—“[is] to keep the main thing the main thing.” Because that’s what’s there.
Excerpted from C Street by Sharlet, Jeff Copyright © 2010 by Sharlet, Jeff. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Jeff Sharlet, New York Times bestselling author of The Family, is a contributing editor for Harper's and Rolling Stone, the coauthor, with Peter Manseau, of Killing the Buddha, and the editor of TheRevealer.org. He has written for Mother Jones, the Washington Post, The Nation, The New Republic, and many other magazines and newspapers, and he has commented on religion and politics for NBC Nightly News, The Daily Show, the Rachel Maddow Show, Fresh Air, Morning Edition, and more. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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